The World Health Organization confirmed the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide rose to more than 18 million last week amid the continued omicron variant surge, ABC News reports.
WHO released its weekly report on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which confirmed infections rose in every world region except for Africa -- where cases dropped by nearly 1/3 -- and the number of reported global deaths remained similar to the previous week at around 45,000.
The rate of new cases did, however, drop compared to the previous week as the 18 million new cases last week marked an increase of 20%, while an increase of about a 50% was reported the previous week, as well as earlier this month, which was the biggest single-week growth in reported cases at any point during the COVID pandemic.
WHO reports Southeast Asia saw the largest increase in new COVID cases last week with a rate of 145% new infections, while the Middle East ranked second with a 68% increase last week.
The Americas (17%) and Europe (10%) were both reported to have the lowest increases after scientists reported last week that the U.S. and Britain showed signs that the omicron variant may have already peaked and both areas could soon see a drastic drop in cases.
President Joe Biden's administration plans to announce that it will give away 400 million nonsurgical N95 masks free of charge at community health centers and retail pharmacies nationwide on Wednesday (January 19), the New York Times reports.
The reported decision comes days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance to acknowledge that surgical masks or respirators provide better protection than cloth masks in relation to the spread of the coronavirus.
The distribution is reportedly being referred to by officials as the "largest deployment of personal protective equipment in U.S. history," the New York Times reports.
N95 respirators get their name because they can filter out 95% of all airborne particles when used properly, but have been in short supply amid a high demand early in the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and, therefore, consumers have opted for alternatives.
However, the CDC's new mask guidelines confirm that well-fitting respirators, including N95s, provide the best level of protection against the spread of COVID-19, as opposed to cloth masks.
Wednesday will also serve as the formal launch for covidtests.gov, which provides information and a link for all Americans to order four free at-home COVID-19 tests completely free, one day after its quiet rollout on Tuesday (January 18).